The Muse (1999)

dir. Albert Brooks

starring: Sharon Stone, Albert Brooks

genre: Comedy, Drama


Imagine, if you will, a world in which every writer had -- like a personal trainer, personal coach, personal assistant, personal chef -- a personal muse. No more writer's block or procrastination. No sabotaging self-doubts. No sadistic inner critic. This writer's fantasy is brought to life in the movies by Albert Brooks in The Muse.

Steven Phillips (Brooks) has just been honored with a humanitarian award. Driving home from the black-tie ceremony, his daughter asks, "What's a humanitarian?" "It's someone who's never won an Oscar," replies Steven in a classic Brooks deadpan. We quickly learn that Steven, a once-successful screenwriter, is slipping from his niche in the Hollywood food chain. His scripts don't sell, he can't write, and, worse, he has no inspiration. In Hollywood-speak, he is "losing his edge" -- and everyone from his producer and agent to his best friend will not let him forget it.

What to do?

When Steven goes to seek the advice of his wildly successful writer friend, Jack (Jeff Bridges), at his Bel-Air home, he notices a mysterious (and gorgeous) woman furtively slipping into a taxi. Is Jack having an affair? he wonders. Steven bares his soul to Jack and, as an aside, asks about the mystery woman. After a bit of, "Oh, I really can't say," shenanigans, he swears Steven to secrecy and tells him that Sarah (played by a diva herself, Sharon Stone) is a muse and has been singularly responsible for all of his recent success. As Steven is desperate enough to believe anything he implores Jack to speak to Sarah on his behalf.

But everything comes with a price. The Muse is a bit like a reverse The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. At least Gray -- in a bargain with the Devil -- maintained his youth (even if his portrait is ravaged with age). Steven becomes contractually involved with a greedy succubus, a vampiric materialist. In Steven's bargain with Sarah he must satisfy her outlandish demands: a $1700-a-day room at the Four Seasons, a Waldorf salad from Spago's at three a.m., a limousine and driver, a gift from Tiffany's. And when all that isn't enough, Sarah begins to encroach upon her "client's" home and family. Steven jokes that she's like "the Muse who came to dinner." (A take-off on the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman Broadway play, and eventual film, about a bitter radio celebrity on a lecture tour who breaks his hip and must stay in a quiet suburban home for the winter -- driving the residents crazy.)

Whenever Steven has doubts about Sarah's muse-ability, he is privy to some well-known movie artist having a tete-a-tete with her. One day it's James Cameron (the director of The Titanic), who leaves her bungalow muttering about Sarah's advice: "No water . . . stay away from water . . . forget about water . . ." On another day there is "Marty" Scorsese who tells Steven that Sarah has advised him to do a remake of Raging Bull, only this time using "a real thin guy." Steven grumbles to himself that the next thing she'll have Scorsese do is a remake of Taxi Driver with all women.

But one day it seems as if Sarah might actually be worth her weight in gold. She tells Steven they need to go to the Long Beach Aquarium. How did she think of that he wants to know. She saw an advertisement in the newspaper and "dreamt" about it. Steven is certain this is it -- the moment of inspiration he has been waiting -- and paying -- for. As he and "the Muse" make their rounds of the aquarium, Steven is suddenly hit with a notion for a story that takes place at -- where else -- an aquarium. How about "Jim Carrey inherits an aquarium?" he beams. Not to be eclipsed, Sarah says that, yes, she was very pleased with The Truman Show. "You were responsible for that?" he gasps. And as they're leaving they run into Rob Reiner who fawns over Sarah and says, "Thank you for The American President," as he removes his Roliflex and hands it to her.

Steven immediately writes the screenplay and gives it to his agent who sends it to Paramount Studios. But he is incredulous when he discovers that Universal Studios already has the exact same script in production -- with, non other, than Rob Reiner as the screenwriter/director. "The Muse stole my ideas!" Steven shrieks at his wife (who also has been "inspired" by Sarah to start a very successful cookie company -- with the patronage of Wolfgang Puck).

So, the supposed daughter of Zeus, one of nine sisters -- "All the women in my family are muses" -- turns out to be . . . . But then you will find out for yourself when you watch the movie.

You may wonder why I didn't place this film in Chapter 2: Divine Inspiration: Meeting the Muse, rather than using it to illustrate a chapter about writer's block and self-doubts. Think about it. As much as we would like for there to be an answer outside of ourselves, a divine muse to transfer a faithful current of inspiration -- like Steven and Jack and James and "Marty" and Wolfgang -- we are essentially left to our own contrivances. Every writer must become his or her own muse. Who breaks through writer's block? Ultimately, we do. Who silences the inner critic. We do. Who conciliates any self-doubts? We do. Who frees the writer within . . . .

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